Earth science in Scotland: A modern tradition…
by Professor Paul Bishop FRSE, Professor of Geography
School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow
Earth science in Scotland: A modern tradition
People who study the Earth and its complex systems might think of themselves as geologists or Earth scientists or physical geographers or geoscientists. But however they think of themselves, they often think of Scotland as the “home” of their research. This is not just because of Scotland's stunning landscapes. The “modern” study of the Earth began in Scotland, and one name and work are irrevocably associated with that ”new” science: James Hutton and his Theory of the Earth, first published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the 1780s.
Hutton revolutionised the way we think about the Earth. He realised that the history of the planet was not marked by a series of catastrophes such as the great Biblical flood. Rather, the Earth as we see it today is the result of ongoing processes; some rapid and even catastrophic, such as earthquakes and tsunami, but most slow and steady, progressively building up and then eroding the Earth’s surface and transporting sediment to the sea. The Earth must be extremely old for such slow processes to operate and such great age provided Charles Darwin with the depth of time he needed for the processes of natural selection and evolution, another of the great intellectual breakthroughs.
Many other fundamental and ‘game-changing’ insights on the Earth have come out of Scotland: debates about its age; major breakthroughs in tectonics and mountain building; and the realisation that Ice Age glaciations are driven by changes in the Earth’s axis and orbit. The innovations continue and are celebrated in this issue of Science Scotland.
The 18th-Century Enlightenment, when Hutton developed his Theory of the Earth, was – to use a modern term – multidisciplinary. Philosophers rubbed shoulders with chemists, physicists with poets and novelists, geologists with sociologists, and economists with mathematicians.
That multidisciplinarity remains a key feature of 21st-Century geosciences in Scotland. The blurring of the boundaries between the different disciplines is no better exemplified than in SAGES, the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society, a five-year geosciences pooling initiative funded by the Scottish Funding Council in 2005. Note the title: “Geoscience, Environment and Society”. SAGES’ success rests fundamentally on a deep collaboration between disciplines and between institutions. This collaboration is most obvious in its jointly-supervised PhD students and highly successful graduate school, but also in its jointly- won research grants, shared equipment and willingness to look outside one’s own institution.
We knew that we were capable of the collaboration needed for SAGES because geoscientists working in Scotland had long cooperated via the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre in East Kilbride, which has since become the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC). SUERC’s story and ethos are outlined here by its past and present Directors. On a personal note, SUERC’s scientific analytical capability was a prime professional draw for my move to Scotland in the late 1990s. Former Director Tony Fallick also points out that SUERC’s capabilities are there for industry, too. The geosciences are very much alive and well in Scotland, most notably in relation to the oil industry. This is illustrated in our ‘company profile’ of Parkmead, an Aberdeen-based SME that is making its way very successfully in the big business world of oil.
So, this issue of Science Scotland confirms that the geosciences continue to play a major role in Scottish science, society and the economy. This will be underlined in December when we celebrate the centenary of the publication of the concept of isotopes by Dr Frederick Soddy. Soddy’s Glasgow-based work on isotopes underpins virtually all of modern geosciences and earned him the Nobel
Prize in 1921. Recent moves by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to downgrade Geology as a subject in the school curriculum seem therefore odd and out of touch. It is hoped that representations from various parties will bear fruit and that schools will continue to educate the next generation in understanding and caring for our home: planet Earth.